Breaking Down the Strange and Shady Backstory of Dwight Howard's Back Injury
What's the deal with Dwight Howard, and what's going on with his back?
Howard's injury came after he almost singlehandedly hijacked the Orlando Magic's season with trade demands made, recanted, made again and ultimately set aside after the March deadline.
The mysterious circumstances surrounding it—particularly the timing, as his back seemed to swell up right as his relationship with the Magic frazzled in public—suggested that Howard may have "quit" on his team.
Since undergoing surgery on his back, details about Dwight's recovery have been surprisingly slow to emerge from his camp, especially considering he's long been one of the more visible and fan-friendly NBA superstars.
He went from tweeting profusely to practically speaking in code during the occasional chat with an inquisitive reporter.
What changed? Did the circus-like swarm of speculation surrounding Dwight's "indecision" contribute to his seemingly recluse turn? Or is there something about the injury that Howard and his handlers don't want the public to know?
Back to the Beginning
Howard's back didn't appear to be an issue until early spring. Then, it allegedly took a punch from Brendan Haywood during the Magic's 100-98 loss to the Dallas Mavericks on March 30.
Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy decided to send video of the supposed incident to the league office, telling John Denton of OrlandoMagic.com:
It’s really ridiculous and I want to get it on film and send it in (to the league office). Haywood just punched him literally with a closed fist right in the back. So (Howard) got through the game because he was loose, but then it really tightened up. They are going to work on him and hopefully he’ll be OK. But (Howard) didn’t do anything (in practice on Saturday).
As outspoken as SVG was on the topic, Howard remained entirely mum, making himself "unavailable for comment on Saturday [March 31] about the alleged punch."
Howard sat out the next two games—back-to-back losses to the Denver Nuggets and the Detroit Pistons—officially citing back spasms. When Josh Robbins of The Orlando Sentinel asked Howard about his back, Howard "would not discuss his injury."
Yet Magic teammates Jameer Nelson and Ryan Anderson were at liberty to speak about physical ailments of their own.
Why Dwight decided to stay silent on this particular topic is unclear. To be sure, he'd fought off questions from the media ad nauseum over the previous four months, as trade demands were made, rescinded and then resubmitted at a dizzying rate.
But why the secrecy when asked about his body? The trade deadline had already passed, so it's not as though acknowledging pain would've harmed Howard's prospects of finding a new home.
Was he simply tired of talking? Afraid of sparking further criticism (from those who later claimed he was a quitter)? Or was there something else going on?
Swigs, Duds and DNPs
Dwight was set to return on April 5 against the New York Knicks. That morning, Van Gundy infamously took swigs of his Diet Pepsi while divulging to attendant media that Howard had privately called for his firing.
This, just before Howard himself unwittingly stepped into what turned out to be a rather awkward situation:
That night, Howard, perhaps upset with SVG and the Magic and/or still bothered by his back, put forth one of his worst performances of the season—eight points, eight rebounds, three blocks, five turnovers and five fouls—in a 96-80 loss to the Knicks.
After the defeat, Howard (per the Associated Press) refused to comment on the encounter or his relationship with Van Gundy.
His game did plenty of talking two nights later in an 88-82 win over the Philadelphia 76ers. Howard bounced back with 20 points, 22 rebounds, six assists and two blocks to help Orlando snap a five-game skid.
Howard appeared to re-injure his bad back right before halftime, but he still managed to play through the pain thereafter:
This time, Howard was outspoken in his postgame comments (per the AP), claiming, among other things, that he wasn't a "quitter":
Like I've said before, regardless of how many points I've got, I would never quit on my team, I would never quit on my coach, I never quit on anything. I'm not a quitter. That's just in me to play hard and fight every night.
The re-aggravation of Dwight's back injury forced him to sit out two more games. According to Kurt Helin of Pro Basketball Talk, the Magic believed Howard's problems to be muscular rather than structural.
Van Gundy wasn't particularly concerned about possibly losing his star player for an extended period of time (per the AP): "From what they're telling me, I'm not real concerned at all. This is a move to try to get it to 100 percent and not have to worry about anymore."
Until, of course, the true nature of Howard's issues finally came to light.
More Serious Than Spasms
Superstitious suspicions came on Friday, April 13. According to the AP, the Magic revealed that Howard was suffering from a herniated disc in his back, rather than "just" spasms. The announcement came after Howard visited with Dr. Robert Watkins in Los Angeles to get a second opinion.
According to Brian K. Schmitz of The Orlando Sentinel, the Magic no longer expected to have Dwight back before the end of the regular season and were unsure as to whether he would be ready in time to rejoin the team for its playoff run.
Dwight Howard expected to be out 14-16 days. Playoffs could start for Magic April 29-30.Race is on.— Brian K. Schmitz (@MagicInsider) April 14, 2012
In the meantime, according to Josh Robbins of The Orlando Sentinel, Howard attempted to rehabilitate at the Magic's practice facility with the assistance of an epidural administered by Dr. Watkins during Howard's visit to L.A.
At no point, though, did Howard so much as mention his injury or his recovery on Twitter, of which he'd long been a fervent user.
In fact, Howard didn't seem to so much as touch his Twitter account until April 16, when he began tweeting about the National Child Identification Program.
On April 20, ESPN's Ric Bucher reported that Howard would undergo back surgery in Los Angeles, thereby ending his season with the Magic and his dream of winning a second gold with USA Basketball at the London Olympics.
Dr. Watkins and the Magic's medical personnel jointly decided to have Dwight go under the knife once it became apparent that the epidural-assisted rehab was only making the injury worse.
Howard once again moved to quash rumors suggesting that he didn't actually need the surgery, but was instead using it as an excuse to avoid playing for the Magic, telling ESPN's Chris Broussard:
It hurts (emotionally). That's the first thing—it hurts. And then with people saying and thinking I'm quitting on my team. This is a real issue. I tried to play through it and it just made my back worse.
At the same time, Howard sounded hopeful about his prospects for recovery:
The doctor said it's a one-inch incision. He said I can start rehab right away and be back to full contact in four months. So I'm not really concerned. If anything, I'll come back stronger.
Dan Fegan, Howard's agent, was quick to defend his client from any accusations of "quitting":
Dwight has never laid down once in his entire career. It's absurd that some publicly, and others privately, speculated that Dwight was laying down or quitting. In fact, he was working his hardest to play through an injury which now requires surgery.
As a result of all this, any lingering questions about the seriousness or legitimacy of Dwight's injury seemed to have been put to rest.
Surgery and the Start of Rehab
Howard's Friday, April 20, procedure was described to the AP by Dr. Watkins as "uneventful."
That's a somewhat odd choice of descriptors, considering that athletes' surgeries are typically characterized as "successful" and rarely as anything else. Howard, though, didn't comment on the procedure via Twitter and hasn't sent out tweets of any sort since that day.
Dwight's rehabilitation program began the very next day with a walking program. It was scheduled to intensify to core stabilization approximately three weeks from then, as suggested by Dr. Watkins.
Back in Orlando, Van Gundy sounded as though he'd long ago resigned himself to coaching the Magic sans Superman:
I don't think the news of the surgery did anything one way or another to our group. I think we've been operating with the expectation that we wouldn't have him back. ... I don't think this was unexpected. I think the surgery, guys may not have expected, but the fact he wasn't going to play the rest of the way, that's the assumption we've been operating on for a long time.
Not the most curious assumption, per se. After all, it's the job of any good NBA coach to hope for the best, but prepare for and expect the worst.
Dr. Watkins later issued an official statement making clear that it would be in Dwight's best interests to rehab in L.A. rather than traveling back and forth to support his Magic teammates during the playoffs (per Josh Robbins of The Orlando Sentinel):
I examined Dwight Howard on Saturday, April 21, 2012 and he showed significant improvement from his preoperative condition that necessitated mandatory spine surgery. He was discharged from Marina Del Rey Hospital on Saturday afternoon and will be reexamined this week. I have advised Dwight not to travel and to undergo rehabilitation treatment for the next three weeks in Los Angeles. He has agreed with my recommendation. While it is anticipated that Dwight will not be able to participate in the Olympics, I am very optimistic that he will be able to play next season.
Van Gundy and the Magic seemed to concur with Dr. Watkins' assessment:
I think the idea was, number one, he’s already there and had to stay a few days, so that saves him a trip. And, number two, at this stage especially, he has to continue to go back for check-ups, so he couldn’t just stay here [in Orlando]. If he were here rehabbing, then he’d have to fly back out there for his check-ups, so you’re talking about a lot of roundtrips, and I’m sure he’d rather be around.
But, quite honestly, with him not playing, he can’t help us a whole lot, so he needs to do what’s best for his rehab. And I think everybody here was in agreement with that.
A sensible sentiment, to be sure. Howard would be of little practical use to the Magic if he were around. Traveling back and forth would only hinder his rehab and, in turn, jeopardize his availability to start the 2012-13 season on time.
Not to mention it would potentially harm his trade value if the Magic were to move him before then.
The next peeps from Howard's camp didn't come until May 4. Dwight spoke to TMZ about his surgery and rehab while out on a stroll in L.A. Howard described the size of the fragment that was removed during the procedure and reiterated that he was not a "quitter."
While Howard was rehabbing, the Magic were getting bounced from the first round of the playoffs by the Indiana Pacers in five games.
Despite there previously appearing to be some animosity between player and coach, Howard continued to speak with Van Gundy, the latter of whom discussed some of their conversations with John Denton of OrlandoMagic.com:
Right before Game 2, I did (talk to Howard). He’s bored to death because he can’t do anything. He’s sitting in a motel doing his rehab and the rehab isn’t anything much. It’s not like he’s out running three miles or anything. He’s starting slow, so he’s bored more than anything.
On May 10, Deadspin posted a video of Howard and his entourage limping around Beverly Hills. Later that month, ESPN's Ric Bucher spoke to Dwight but didn't address the superstar's health, other than to say that his mobility was still rather limited.
What exactly Dwight was doing to rehabilitate his back or when he might be ready to return to the court remained a mystery.
Some Things Change...
Three days after Bucher's piece, the Magic cleaned house, firing Van Gundy and coming to a mutual resignation agreement with GM Otis Smith. Whether Howard had a hand in either decision, directly or indirectly, is unclear.
Considering Dwight's displeasure with the team's direction since losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2009 NBA Finals and his subsequent attempts to force a move out of Orlando, it wouldn't be unreasonable to think that Howard had something to do with the shakeup.
After all, he wouldn't have been the first superstar to have participated in the day-to-day dealings of an organization (see: O'Neal, Shaquille; Bryant, Kobe; James, LeBron, etc.).
The sports news cycle went largely Dwight-less until June 6, when a source informed Larry Ridley of WESH 2 News that Howard still loved Orlando and was "hurt" by all the negativity from those who blamed him for the Magic's demise.
Howard was still rehabbing in L.A., though details regarding specific activities and timetables remained scarce, at best.
Howard's silence persisted through June 21, when Magic CEO Alex Martins unveiled the hiring of Rob Hennigan, a 30-year-old former assistant general manager with the San Antonio Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Said Hennigan of Howard at the time (per the AP):
Personally I look forward to sitting down with Dwight and sharing with him the vision and the direction we're going to go, and I look forward to listening to what his thought process is and where his head's at. At the end of the day, we'll take it from there.
Hennigan didn't wait long to clean house in Orlando, firing a host of front office personnel (per The Orlando Sentinel) and (per ESPN's Chris Broussard) bringing Scott Perry over from the Detroit Pistons ahead of the 2012 NBA draft.
Scott Perry has been hired by Orlando GM Rob Hennigan to be the Magic's assistant GM, sources say. Perry was the Pistons' VP of BBall Ops— Chris Broussard (@Chris_Broussard) June 25, 2012
In that same report, Broussard referred to allegations from Howard's camp to the NBA Players' Association: The Magic allegedly "blackmailed" Dwight into opting into the final year of his deal at the trade deadline back in March.
They reportedly considered whether or not to file a complaint on Howard's behalf to make him a free agent, though nothing came of it.
Still, no fresh word of Howard's rehab, through sources or anyone else. Howard's Twitter account, by the way, had been silent for more than two months.
The Market Moves...and Dwight Stays
Over the next few days, the picture of Superman's future began to shift rather dramatically. Dwight even contributed his two cents directly, albeit without providing much information regarding his back.
Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports reported on July 30 that the Nets were moving to acquire Joe Johnson from the Atlanta Hawks. This was intended to show free-agent point guard Deron Williams that the Nets were serious about contending upon their arrival in Brooklyn.
Yet, it was now difficult for Nets GM Billy King to pry Howard from the Magic's grasp. The deal for "Iso-Joe" would sap Brooklyn of its many of its tradable assets and (more importantly) its financial flexibility.
On July 1—the opening day of the NBA's free-agency period—the next chapter of the so-called "Dwightmare" officially began.
According to Wojnarowski, the Nets, Rockets and Lakers threw their hats (back) into the ring. Each had different goods to offer Orlando: Brooklyn seemed to be the most aggressive; Houston had draft picks and cap space; L.A. had the best single asset (Andrew Bynum) to offer.
Day 2 of free agency saw Dwight tell Yahoo!: "There’s only one team on my list and if I don’t get traded there, I'll play the season out and explore my free agency after that."
He was speaking, presumably, of the Brooklyn Nets. Howard also confirmed that he'd requested a trade during his meeting with Hennigan, denied having ever used the word "blackmail" to describe his issues with the Magic and emphasized that he hadn't faked his back injury (per Wojnarowski):
I’ve never faked anything. I’d never fake a back injury to not play for my team. I played a lot of games in a lot of pain, and there were times that I was crying in the locker room afterward because I was so seriously hurt. But I kept fighting. I’ve played with a cracked sternum in the past, and played with a lot of different [injuries].
This time, I couldn't play. Regardless of what people say, "Hey, you’re Superman," I'm a man. I bleed. And I have bones, too. And something happened that I couldn’t control.
It really upset me that anyone would say that I was doing something out of spite for my team or my city. I have the utmost respect for the Magic organization, for the people of Orlando. Everything I did was from my heart, and I would never do anything to betray my city.
That same report included this tidbit:
Howard is rehabilitating from back surgery, and wouldn’t speculate on whether he could be prepared to return for the start of the regular season. Howard had a herniated disk repaired, and sizable fragments of bone removed on April 20.
In other words, Howard's resurfacing didn't yield any new information of note regarding his recovery, though it did include another impassioned defense of its legitimacy. A write-up by Wojnarowski on July 3 regarding the Lakers' discussions of a potential Bynum-for-Howard swap was similarly short on details.
That same day, the Nets re-signed D-Will to a five-year, $100 million deal after coming to an agreement to snag Johnson from the Hawks (both per Wojnarowski), thereby putting Brooklyn's pursuit of Superman on hold.
Any mention of concerns about Howard's health from those teams interested in trading for him didn't surface until July 5. On exploring Steve Nash's arrival in L.A. potentially changing Dwight's thinking, Wojnarowski wrote:
The Lakers want to win championships now, and here’s a question they’re asking themselves: With Howard still rehabilitating back surgery, do they risk a season where he's still physically recovering?
Eric Pincus of Hoopsworld made more extensive mention of Howard's back in the Lakers' thinking:
Sources close to the Lakers say they are not bothered by Howard’s reluctance to commit long-term to the team...
So what’s the hurdle?
The Lakers biggest concern is the status of Howard’s back, which the source indicates they believe has been healing “very slowly.”
The Magic haven’t given a clear timeline as of yet, but the team said they don’t believe it will be “an issue going forward.”
As Pincus later points out, the Lakers are in something of a unique position to understand what's going on with Howard's rehab:
Howard’s surgeon Dr. Robert Watkins, out of Los Angeles, is affiliated with the Lakers. Under normal privacy laws, a doctor cannot reveal the status of his patient to an outside party but if the Lakers were doing their due diligence at the permission of the Magic and Howard, perhaps there’s something they saw to scare them off...
Howard may be ready to go without hindrance with another All-Star season in the making, but today that’s an unknown.
The Lakers may still take a leap of faith but presently it seems they’re holding back, which is why the Nets remain the favorite [to land Howard via trade].
But why would the Nets not be holding back? On Brooklyn's situation, Pincus says: "For the Nets, who would be giving up pieces like Brook Lopez, MarShon Brooks, Kris Humphries and picks, they can afford to be patient with Howard’s back."
It would seem, then, that each prospective team's concerns over Dwight's back were related to the perceived value of the assets being relinquished. That's not exactly uncommon or unreasonable—the less value that a team gives up in a trade (in its own mind), the more risk it should be willing to accept back.
Especially when one of the assets on offer (Lopez) was coming off a season in which he missed 61 games with a broken foot.
Still, is that enough to explain Brooklyn's seemingly more haphazard approach? Were the Nets more keen to make a splash now and deal with the consequences later? Was Howard's status as one of the most valuable players in the league enough reason for Brooklyn to turn a blind eye to his back?
Or, perhaps, did they know something about Howard's injury that the Lakers didn't? And, if so, why would Brooklyn be privy to more information?
Bye Bye, Brooklyn
Of course, that all changed once the Cleveland Cavaliers withdrew from a complicated four-team deal and the Nets opted to re-sign restricted free agent Brook Lopez (again, both per Wojnarowski). With Lopez untradable until January, Brooklyn no longer had the flexibility or the available assets to fit Dwight into its immediate future.
Interestingly enough, the Nets didn't seem particularly concerned about Lopez's recent foot problems, which had forced him to miss all but five games last season.
Whether they had anything to do with the Magic's reluctance to make a deal remains uncertain, though it stands to reason that Hennigan would be gun-shy about taking on a player with those concerns attached. Foot injuries have been known to cripple the careers of talented centers, most notably those of Bill Walton and Yao Ming.
Not entirely unlike how talk of Howard's back as a deterrent, in historical terms, remained largely out of sight and out of mind in the rumor mill.
Nate Jones of Goodwin Sports mentioned back in April that San Antonio Spurs' Hall of Famer David Robinson ran into some difficulty with his back during his career, just before Larry Brown Sports served up a reminder of Amar'e Stoudemire's struggles with such injuries.
The intervening days saw the Rockets step up their efforts to bring Superman to Houston, going so far as to amnesty veteran forward Luis Scola.
The Lakers, too, continued their pursuits, though this time reportedly with another team—the Cavs—serving as a third party, to take on Andrew Bynum, absorb the Magic's bad contracts and move young players and picks back to Orlando.
Back in the Spotlight...?
Then, on July 16, Howard suddenly popped up on Twitter, but not in a public manner. Markee Randolph, a former employee at Amway Arena who'd supposedly spoken to Dwight in person before (per Jose Martinez of Complex Sports), released a string of direct messages that appear to come from Howard himself.
(Warning: the following tweets and images contain graphic language.)
Jus bout to post the s%*^ twitter.com/MagicMarkee/st…— Markee Randolph © (@MagicMarkee) July 16, 2012
Aside from thoughts on the Magic that Howard (presumably) offers here, he also mentions that he's focused on getting healthy and that he's "not fully recovered yet" to the extent that he "can't even run yet."
This, even while rumors about fervent interest from the Lakers and the Rockets continued to swirl. Were potential trade partners privy to this information?
Surely, no organization (at least, no well-run organization) would dive into a Dwight Howard trade without doing its due diligence with regard to his injury.
Or, as with the Nets, perhaps the Lakers and the Rockets were still willing to accept the risk that comes with acquiring an injured superstar, even though L.A. (as mentioned earlier) had its reservations.
Might the frequency or seriousness of the rumored trade talks have been overstated by "sources" and/or the reporters citing them?
Were the "sources" even accurate to begin with? Considering how reports have conflicted throughout this debacle, it's possible that different sources had different information.
@justmikeyhrc I wasn't returning there anyways...But he did see it and told me to stop posting it on twitter— Markee Randolph © (@MagicMarkee) July 17, 2012
Either way, this bit of leaked correspondence adds an intriguing wrinkle to the whole saga.
If true, why would Dwight bother responding to someone with direct messages on Twitter, especially given the risk of such messages getting out into the public sphere anyway? And why wouldn't Dwight divulge such details to more reputable sources?
Meanwhile, on July 17, Howard was spotted taking in a baseball game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Philadelphia Phillies from a luxury suite at Dodger Stadium.
T.J. Simers of the Los Angeles Times managed to catch up with Howard (however briefly) during the game. As he wrote:
A fan yelled to Howard, "Are you coming to L.A.?"
And Howard replied with the consent of his security guard, "I'm here now." He paused, and then added, "to rehab."
I asked about his back, which he had surgically repaired, and he said he will be fine for the start of the season, but he said he could not talk about basketball.
Fine for the start of the season? Even though he might not have started running yet?
To be fair, the preseason doesn't start until October 9, with the regular season tipping off three weeks later. That gives Howard another two months or so to rehab his back before the start of training camp (wherever he may wind up) and more than three months to get well before the games actually mean something.
As such, there's still plenty of time for Dwight to heal, not to mention uncertainty as to whether Markee Randolph's "leaks" are trustworthy.
More Questions Than Answers
Since then, Dwight has seemingly softened his stance regarding his future home, with Jarrod Rudolph of RealGM reporting early on July 19 that Howard would be open to signing on long-term with the Lakers if the Magic were to send him to LA.
The Lakers then became the front runners to land Howard's considerable services. Dwight, too, said he'd be ready to go when the 2012-13 season starts this fall, though his agent insisted to ESPN's Ric Bucher on July 20 that he will test the free-agent waters next summer:
Dwight's position has remained unchanged since the end of this past season. He fully intends to explore free agency at the end of next season, regardless of what team trades for him, including Brooklyn.
What's still unclear, though, is why Dwight has been so reclusive, particularly since his surgery.
Why is it that one of the NBA's brightest and most gregarious personalities has said and done so little to enlighten fans and inquiring minds alike as to how his recovery is going, while other stars—like Dwyane Wade and Kyrie Irving—have been so transparent in their respective processes, particularly on Twitter?
In short, why hasn't Howard's camp volunteered more information?
Even Derrick Rose, a former MVP who's hardly on Howard's level as far as affability and sociability in the public eye are concerned, went out of his way to discuss his recovery from a torn ACL in a short video on YouTube.
Then again, none of those three have been in the headlines as frequently or as prominently as Dwight has. He's the only one who's big and strong enough to play center in a league where true paint-patrolling big men of All-Star talent are as few and far between as they've been in decades.
He's also the only one of his wounded peers who's likely to be playing on a new team while dramatically shifting the balance of power in the NBA as a result.
Still, it's strange to see a seemingly friendly personality like Dwight Howard, a man who's shown such a strong desire to please his public in the past, suddenly steer clear of them, for the most part.
That little anyone has heard of the current condition of Howard's back has come not by choice from his camp, but rather from presumably unplanned run-ins with TMZ and T.J. Simers (who's known for being the resident curmudgeon of the L.A. Times sports section) as well as private messages turned over to the wiles of the Internet without his consent.
So why the shift in transparency and communicativeness for Dwight?
Might it have something to do with the maelstrom of criticism and doubt that he's endured (or, rather, put himself through) in recent months?
Is he trying to keep a low profile amidst such persistent attention and speculation? Could the process of dealing with a major injury for the first time in his career have anything to do with Howard's supposed shift?
Is there something else going on to which "sources" either aren't privy or aren't willing to divulge?
Or is Dwight's "deal"—and everything that entails—just none of our dang business?
In the end, we're left standing where we started—with more questions than answers.
The whole truth about Dwight Howard's injury and his subsequent handling of it remains elusive. This could all be interpreted as conspiracy, coincidence, something in between or nothing at all.
The public may not be entitled to the privilege of all the information involved. Yet it's the glaring lack thereof—in these frenzied times of Twitter reactions and around-the-clock sports media coverage—which stands out as reason for suspicion.
So, too, is the slow trickle of information out of Howard's corner, not to mention the scant attention paid to it.
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